CHAMPAIGN — Lovie Smith took the Bears to a Super Bowl.
Illinois is hoping he can lead the Fighting Illini out of the Big Ten’s basement.
While certainly nothing is official yet, many reports Saturday — some coming as early as in the middle of athletics director Josh Whitman’s press conference addressing the dismissal of head coach Bill Cubit — indicated that Smith, the former Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach, is expected to become the next head coach of the Illini.
Smith is an out-of-nowhere candidate but one that has to have Illinois fans thrilled after all the success he had at the pro level right up the road in Chicago. And, no, no one is suggesting that Smith and his NFL resume will immediately break the stronghold Urban Meyer, Mark Dantonio and Jim Harbaugh have on the Big Ten. But for a football program that was viewed by many as a complete and utter mess as recently as earlier Saturday, Smith is a big name and a seemingly home-run hire, should he be the guy that’s announced as Cubit’s successor.
He won 81 games in nine seasons leading the Bears, winning a trio of division championships and making an appearance in Super Bowl XLI. He also reached the Super Bowl in 2002 as the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams. Smith might not have left the best memory in the minds of Bears fans — though he was fired after a 10-win season — or the Buccaneers — who axed him after just eight wins in two years — but he knows winning football.
Smith has never been a head coach at the college level, and it’s been an awful long time since he was an NCAA assistant. But he does have plenty of experience coaching in college, serving on the staffs of multiple Big Ten and SEC programs.
Already many are questioning whether Smith can transition to the college game — and more importantly to college recruiting — after such a long stay in the NFL. But his NFL history and experience should only serve as a positive recruiting tool. He knows what it takes for players to succeed at the pro level. He’s been to a Super Bowl. He can pitch all that to prospective recruits.
Don’t you think it might be somewhat appealing for Chicago kids to play for the former head coach of the Bears? That alone could help the Illini break a recruiting dry spell in their own state. And Smith’s Texas roots probably won’t hurt, either. Not a bad territory to know when it comes to recruiting.
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Certainly the challenges of coaching at the college level and coaching in the NFL are different. Also true is that the challenges of coaching at Illinois are different than those of other college jobs. Not only will Smith have to turn around the on-field fortunes of a program that’s been to just one bowl game in the past four years and only four in the last 14, but he’ll also have to — with Whitman’s help — finish the job of emerging from a difficult period for the program and the athletics department in general. It was just in August that Tim Beckman was fired for his mistreatment of student-athletes. Add in Cubit’s hiring and firing as the permanent head coach in a matter of months, and this is a program that has faced a lot of instability.
A bigger deal than Smith’s recruiting abilities might be his healing abilities and whether he can bring 18-, 19-, 20- and 21-year-olds together in his first couple seasons.
But while there is much unknown about how Smith will perform as Illinois’ head coach, what can be deduced is this: A program in bad need of a spark, in dire need of some excitement, in desperate need of a reason for fans to fill the stands just got all that. Smith is a big name, a big draw and a big deal.
There’s reason to be excited about Illinois football again. Time for Smith to dig back into the closet and pull out his old orange-and-blue gear.